Where originality goes to get mowed down by a Tommy gun
Going into Gangster Squad I was pretty clear about what I wanted. I wanted a gangster movie that was going to have a little fun, but not get too serious. I thought that's what we needed in the genre after a few years of depressing guys in fedoras cropping up. Where was the Untouchables charm and machine gun violence?
I should be careful what I ask for. Gangster Squad is the exact movie I went in wanting, and yet when I came out I didn't really want it anymore. It's not like it does a lot of stuff wrong, it just does all that stuff the exact same way far better movies have done before.
Gangster Squad seems to be a gangster movie made by people who have watched too many gangster movies. Blatantly -- and I mean really not even pretending to hide it -- stealing from the Untouchables and heavily influenced by pretty much every other gangster film ever, you've seen this movie 100 times over. That doesn't actually make it less fun, but it does make it somewhat painful at points where its obvious theft makes you notice how it really isn't as good as the films it is stealing from. If you're served a piece of steak you're happy until it reminds you of the filet mignon that you had last week.
Gangster Squad is basically The Untouchables but in L.A. and without Sean Connery. Already we're off to a rockier start. Sgt. John O'Mara (James Brolin), an honest cop in a crooked system, is tasked by his gruff talking police chief to go after mob boss Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn) by assembling a special unti of cops who don't need to follow the usual rules. These cops include a quick draw, the Hispanic guy, the Black guy and Ryan Gosling. The latter plays Sgt. Jerry Wooters who happens to fall for Cohens girl, Grace Faraday (Emma Stone). The conflict between this gang and the mobsters makes up for the rest of the film in a collection of blood-filled action sequences, groan worthy one-liners and ridiculously campy emotional scenes.
I'm not joking when I say it's campy. For the first half of the film, before it starts literally stealing from Untouchables (seriously, I thought a baby carriage was going to roll onto the screen), the film reminded me more of the movie adaptation of Dick Tracey than anything else. Penn's Cohen is right out of that film's cast of caricatured villains. You can tell he's having fun with it and his performance is definitely one of the strong parts of the film. The rest of the cast is a bit weaker with Brolin being as stiff as a board and Gosling unable to be as slick as he should be. Emma Stone is probably the most miscast as she attempts to vamp it up, but it turns out like the nerdy girl playing dress up.
By now you probably know the sordid history of the film. The movie, which was supposed to be released last year, got delayed because of a scene where men shoot up a movie theater. That scene was removed completely and in its place is a new scene taking place in Chinatown and far less violent. The ease with which this is done points to another issue the film has in that it doesn't actually add up to a cohesive whole. Instead each sequence plays out like a random scene from a random gangster movie, culminating in a ridiculous fist fight that is almost comedic. Each action sequence, though perfectly fun and tolerable in and of itself, feels separate from what came before it and are surprisingly different in tone. There's a bunch of gangster movie parts here that work fine, but they don't actually make a great gangster movie.
What they do make is a bit of fun, however. While it's hard to point to anything that's actually good as a whole in the film its easy to have fun with it. The shootouts and fist fights are full of blood and violence, and when the cheese does work it's pretty outstanding. Brolins stoic performance doesn't work throughout, but at moments when he's delivering the right line it's absolutely brilliant. There is definitely fun to be hard here even if it's fun you've had previously.
There is almost nothing original about Gangster Squad, and while lack of originality doesn't make a movie bad immediately when it becomes the prevailing feeling of your film there are issues. Gangster Squad steals heavily from the likes of The Untouchables and Dick Tracey, but never makes a movie for itself. While it still might be fun to watch it doesn't make for anything that you'll remember beyond the next week. It's just too easy to confuse most of its scenes with better ones that have come before it.